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Theatre of the Absurd or Surrealism?

When It Rains by JPR Ochieng’-Odero.  Published by Acacia Publishers, 2010. 64 pgs.  Reviewed by Oby Obyerodhyambo.

The symbolism of a tempest has been used in literature and drama from time immemorial.  Rain, especially heavy rain, is a metaphor for entrapment by forces beyond human control; being at the mercy of external and powerful menacing powers well beyond the capacity of mortals.  In the play King Lear by William Shakespeare the tempest that Lear finds himself exposed to when he has lost his crown to his scheming daughter symbolizes his helplessness.  In the case of JPR Ochieng’-Odero’s play, When It Rains the deluge acts not only as the malignant force that cripples the characters and forces them to huddle in the bar in which tragedy hounds them, but it ominously suggest their helplessness in the face of their plight.  Mzee Mzee repeats severally that …’whenever it rains ghouls and demons come to visit’ emphasizing the foreboding feeling of doom that glues the play together.  To add to the feeling of tragedy is the fact that this is a Friday and probably, though it is not mentioned, could have well been the thirteenth day of the month!  Friday is said to be a favorite day with all manner of nefarious characters.

The night on which the play is set has all the ingredients of a surrealistic horror movie; the characters like insects walking into a spider’s web are drawn to the pub christened Fat Cat Bar.   There is really nothing fat catish about the bar considering that ‘Fat Cat’ is a euphemism for exploitative powerful persons in the political or economic apex of society.  JPR’s motley crowd hardly fit that description and the establishment’s location does not lend itself to the aforementioned clientele.   The characters converge here in this bar and it is unclear whether this is the only place that they can shelter from the rain, or if they are regular drunks who use the downpour as an excuse to be caught up here.  The enthusiasms with which they partake of the drinks and the familiarity between them suggest that they are regulars and obviously fond of drink.

From the very beginning of the play there is an absurdist lack if inertia that reminds  one of Estragon and Vladimir in Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett or Peter and John in A Play by Robert Sserumaga.  Like the characters in Beckett’s classic the individuals in When It Rains are stuck in a rut, seemingly waiting for something to happen.  There is apparently a general strike by the public transport matatus and it is also raining but it is also late in the night.  Could they be waiting for the strike to resolve itself, for the rain to subside or the night to give way to dawn or ominous Friday to become Saturday!  The barman, Oyatta complains over and over again that he does not know how he will get home because there are no means of transport, but he makes no attempt to close shop and leave.  Pepi too is marooned; she was to have gotten home to receive her grandson, but somehow ends up in the bar with Daktari at whose mercy she commends herself since he offers to drop her home.  She keeps stating that she needs to go home and be there for when the young lad comes, but she makes no move.  Mzee Mzee does not seem to be very far from home, but alleges that he cannot leave for home at thst time because of the risk of being killed.  Daktari like Eva are waiting for the arrival of somebody and hence he is purposefully in no hurry to go anywhere.  Apart from Daktari and Eva the futility of their waiting is clear when one considers that as it gets later in the night whether the rain stops or the matatu strike is called off they will not be able to get home because of the fear of insecurity.  In a nutshell they are all symbolically stuck; waiting helpless victims of a broken down anarchistic society.  They are at the mercy of bogus policemen manning fake road blocks where there are no cars to block, gun toting thugs roaming the city looking for prey, matatu cartels that play deafening music and pornographic material in family transport, an electricity company that can hardly ensure uninterrupted power supply to which people respond by whipping out candles and a phone network works on and off.  The helplessness of the characters in When it Rains echoes the frustrations in the famous lines in Waiting for Godot,Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes, it’s awful’.  It is absurd as it gets; the only thing that seems to be working is the beer supply chain providing them temporary refuge from reality.  As they wait they are unwittingly getting sucked deeper into the eye of the storm; the thugs they were sheltering from walk right into their hideout and only later do they realize that even amongst them they were already amid the objects of their fear.  It is clear that JPR proposes there is really no escape from the violence and crime since kikulacho ki nguoni mwako – what ails you is right within you!

This is the setting that JPR chooses to use to examine the theme of breakdown of law and order and the descent into anarchy.  A state in which human lives mean very little and people are killed indiscriminately or at the slightest provocation.  If one is not killed by a thug then it could be a rogue policeman or even vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to do the job of maintaining law and order to plug the hole left gaping by systemic ineptitude of the police and other law enforcement agencies.  It is a clear case of a system that has completely gone to the dogs and a population wallowing in despair.

JPR makes an attempt to provide an analysis of the insecurity and crime infestation via the voices of various characters; Oyatta, Pepi, Mungwana, Mzee Mzee who air various theories on the reasons why crime has become so entrenched in their society, the reasons for the apparent apathy but all the reasons converge at one point: the people are helpless against crime.  They have been emasculated to the point of lethargy and simply whine, moan and complain.  There is no concrete action that they contemplate or engage in.  Like characters in an absurdist drama they are simply stuck busy doing nothing.

Yakubu a hero of sorts, wages an extra-judicial crusade against organized crime that eventually costs him his wife.  His son, Clinton, is kidnapped to bait him, and were it not for a tragic-happy turn or events at the end of the play the boy too would have been killed by the gang.  His wife laments that he who committed so much to fight crime is its biggest loser.  His unorthodox methods might be effective but the illegality renders his approach unviable.  He is described as a vengeful crusader and hardly a role model.  Even though at the end he is able to turn tables on the criminal gang and with his wife’s dying words urging his restraint his unofficial status as a police reservist hardly offers institutional respite from crime.

Oyatta who seems to be the voice of reason both in life and post-humously died when he makes a reckless dash to seek assistance from a policeman whose capacity to deal with crime is laughable.  He, in a sense, wastes his life by making the mad dash.  His cavalier approach is thus also condemned as self-destructive.  Mzee Mzee upon whom the dying Isabella lays her hopes is a cynical drunkard from whom very little can be expected.  He is himself contemplating taking flight with a client’s insurance policy.  He believes that crime is hatched in the cesspits of the estates where low-lives dwell and his solution to battling crime is to arm himself with a knife!   He has lived his life on the beat selling insurance that people in the kind of society described in the play are in dire need for.  Mungwana, a choleric misanthropist frustrated after losing political office has all manner of unworkable solutions to societal dilemmas.  His ‘people should take charge’ idealism is devoid of any realistic plan for what ‘people’ will do with that power once they have seized it.

None of JPR’s characters therefore seem to hold any key to unlocking the door of the dark dungeon of helplessness that they are spiraling in.  Oyatta is brought back to life to offer a Boalian ending of the play.  The audience is tasked to make a choice between wallowing in cynicism like Mungwana and Mzee Mzee who lament the inability of due process to offer solutions, or the quasi-legal operations of Yakubu who takes the law into his own hands and loses almost everything that matters, or adopting a feeble third option of forgiveness.  The question that one would ask of JPR is: what is the way forward.  Granted, crime and breakdown of law and order is a major problem, but what to do about it?  There are all manner of reasons that lead people to adopt a criminal lifestyle.  Rover’s reason is the most uncomplicated; he is responding to perceived betrayal by the society that turned its back on him by lashing out at the same society.  What of Eva and Daktari?  The former seems to derive a sociopathic pleasure from engaging in crime while Daktari seems to be the tragic genius who decides to use his intelligence to prey on an unsuspecting public.  In Boss’ words what they are doing is ‘protesting through action; seeking redress for our grievances…’ and they expect their victims to ‘provide that redress soon or else…’  This is the most convoluted explanation engaging in terror; blame the victim syndrome.  Are the likes of Eva, Daktari and Boss criminals because the political elite have abused the trust that was bestowed upon them by engaging in mega corruption?  If they are, then does the answer to the problem of insecurity lie in political reformation or revolution?  Will a new political culture stem the rise in crime?  Will it deal with the problems of poverty real and perceived that motivate people like Rover on the one hand and Eva and Daktari on the other?  The play laments that crime has become so rampant, but does not delve deeply into the root causes that nurture criminal minds.  Maybe this is too daunting a task and all that a play can do is present to an audience a slice of the happenings that people who have fallen foul of thugs have experienced so that the sense of fear and outrage can give birth to some action.  If the Boalian experiment was meant to empower the audience to take the fight against crime to the next level it does not really work because after a suggestion of people taking power in their own hands it is reduced by Oyatta to ‘mob justice’.  One would want to imagine that people taking the war against crime as a community problem would include structural interventions that would deal with issues around the root causes of crime and not just the symptoms.  If the play is in the mould of the theatre of the absurd then it simply shows the futility of human life, their inability to make a difference and like the characters in Waiting for Godot keep waiting today and will do so tomorrow.

©kymsnetfeatures

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